"As the path of the birds in the air or of fishes in the water is invisible, even so is the path of the possessors of wisdom." - Mahabharata 12.6763













PRABUDDHA BHARATASteps to Woman Empowerment  




          Steps to Womens Empowerment



          Swami Shashankananda



     It is largely held that women all over the world have been made to suffer discrimination and deprivation of variouskinds since the beginning of time, that they have all along been denied even such basic rights as access to literacy and property. This global concern has steadily grown through the past few decades and has resulted in efforts to bring women into the mainstream of life, mainly through socio-economic activities aimed at empowering them and thus restoring equality between the sexes.


     Though the concept of womens empowerment, as it is now understood, and the movement to achieve it are fairly recent Western phenomena, India has not escaped their influence. Womens empowerment was one of the primary objectives of the Ninth Five Year Plan, and the Government of India even declared the year 2001 Womens Empowerment Year. Backed by the government, policy planners and implementers are now concentrating on the task of removing gender disparities. The Tenth Five Year Plan reflects this endeavour in a big way. The challenge of making education and legal and property rights accessible to women is being met, and steps are being taken to ensure their financial security. Besides these fundamental rights, reservation of jobs and seats for women in Parliament, Legislative Assemblies and gram panchayats have become the burning issues of the day.




     The Indian Woman: Decline in Her Status




     In ancient India, however, woman was never an object of pity - neglected, weak and needing help. The pages of our cultural history are aglow with ideals like the scholarly Gargi and Maitreyi, the chaste Sita and Savitri, the devoted Parvati and that paragon of mothers, Madalasa. Far from being treated as a commodity, woman enjoyed the highest respect in society - that accorded to a mother. As a matter of fact, she was looked upon as the veritable representation of Shakti, the source of all power, while today we are reduced to talking about empowering her. How strange! Even medieval Indian history is full of stories of heroic and learned women, not to speak of women saints.


     The decline of Indian womens social status began with the arrival of foreign invaders. The purdah system that came into being then was devised with the best of intentions, that of keeping them from vulgar gaze. But alas, the road to hell is paved with good intentions! Stopped from stepping out of their houses, women had to go without education - and that gave birth to disparity. Illiterate and uneducated, women gradually came to be looked down upon by men. So great was their suffering that they began to believe that they were born to suffer. And things came to such a sorry pass that when a daughter was born the parents grieved! This was the position of women in nineteenth-century India.




     The Indian Woman: Her Rise




     At a time when some social reformers were still thinking of reintroducing education for women, Sri Ramakrishna demonstrated the greatness of women and thus sowed the seeds of womens empowerment. He worshipped God as Shakti, accepted a woman as his guru, devotedly served his mother until her last day and worshipped his own wife as the Mother Goddess. Not only that, he left her behind to complete his mission of liberating humanity from bondage of every kind. Where else will we find a better example of womens empowerment? The relationship that existed between Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi was ideal in all respects. But it also shows that gender disparities are well and truly removed only when both men and women are educated in the real sense of the word, when both have a sound understanding of inter-human relationships, and when both strive for spiritual unfoldment.


     Womens empowerment aims at equal partnership and joint responsibility, with family duties distributed equally between man and wife. However, for the experiment to be successful, at least in the Indian context, one more vital element needs to be kept in focus: the entire experiment should be based on an awareness of the culture and spiritual values of the land. And mothers being the architects of their childrens lives, their education has to be given priority. Women are teachers as well as mothers. As the proverb goes, If you educate a man, you educate only one person; but if you educate a woman, you educate a whole family.


     This was just the conclusion Swami Vivekananda came to after his travels in the West. There he saw women educated and free, and he dreamed of bringing education to the women of India. But his idea of womens education was slightly different from the modern approach that we see today. Practical that he was, Indias spiritual traditions formed the basis of his scheme of education. It was his firm belief that any programme of education that ignored national ideals was doomed to failure. Said he: Ideal characters must always be presented before the view of the girls to imbue them with a devotion to lofty principles of selflessness. The noble examples of Sita, Savitri, Damayanti, Lilavati, Khana, and Mira should be brought home to their minds, and they should be inspired to mould their own lives in the light of these. Obviously, Swamijis feet were firmly planted on the cultural soil of India.




     Ramakrishna Mission in Womens Welfare




     Women really do not need to be empowered by men. In one of Swami Vivekanandas conversations we come across his strong views on the issue. He did not think it was possible for men to solve womens problems. Their duty lay in providing education and opportunity to women, and once that was done women would automatically become capable of looking after themselves. This has been the Ramakrishna Missions basic attitude to womens welfare and the philosophy underlying all its activities in this sphere. Let us now look at the work done by Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama, Morabadi, Ranchi, one of the Missions model institutions, which has, of late, been giving more attention to gender sensitization in order to fight rural poverty.


     The centre was started in 1927 and for the first four decades of its existence confined itself to some basic public-welfare work on a humble scale. But severe spells of drought in the 1960s galvanized its monks, who, not remaining contented with relief work, engaged themselves in serious attempts at evolving a lasting solution to the problem. It became clear to them that unless the resource-poor farmers of the area were empowered with need-based technology supported by group action, they would never be able to counter similar adverse conditions. It was by way of fulfilling this requirement that Divyayan (the divine way), an integrated rural development institute, was established in 1969. In this story, we shall see how Divyayans integrated approach has been central to its success in securing economic security and self-respect for the weaker sections of society, how the formation of its womens self-help groups, with their knowledge, effort and skills, have been basic to strengthening the wider community.




     Education among Women




     In the villages the monks observed that a large number of children, especially girls, were compelled by circumstances to remain at home to help their parents, either with domestic chores or out in the fields. In order that such children may avail themselves of basic education, the Ashrama started a chain of night schools and nutrition centers with the help of ex-trainees of Divyayan. On completion of their course at the night school the girls were encouraged to join regular schools. Today the centre runs 70 such rural night schools.


     The year 2000 brought government recognition. The National Institute of Open Schooling accredited the Ashrama for its work in providing Open Basic Education (classes 1 to 8), Academic Education (secondary and senior secondary levels) and Vocational Education (secondary and higher secondary levels). By this time the centre was already running study centres and conducting examinations for students of classes 1 to 8 in the candidates own villages. Till date, 333 students have benefited from these schools, with 500 more due to appear for the class 8 examination this year. Numbers aside, it is the penetration of the Ashramas educational programmes that is noteworthy. A six-year-old girl who was obliged to be with her jailed mother took the class 3 examination in the jail itself - and passed! - thanks to the programmes commitment.


     The Sarvashiksha Abhiyan (mass education drive) is another important project. The Ashrama now has 340 Sarvashiksha centres spread over three blocks of Ranchi district. It is their aim to ensure that no girl between ages 6 and 14 remains illiterate.




     Capacity Building for Women




     The Ashrama had launched its rural development programmes at a time when basic necessities of life such as food, shelter and health care, not to speak of education, were difficult of access to people of the surrounding areas. The condition of women was appalling, as they were quite neglected. Ideas like providing women opportunities for skill transformation, and such other services - indispensible necessities in the development process of a community - were still undreamt of. Though the centre saw that the quality of life of the womenfolk needed to be improved on a priority basis, it was difficult to address the problem forthwith. Since it had adopted an agriculture-oriented development approach, emphasis was placed on disseminating technology mostly among the menfolk. However, it soon made up for lost time.


     Sometime in 1998, I visited Obar village to have an interaction with the farmers. That day a few young women met me and expressed their grievances. Why were all the activities in the villages being done only for men? Women wanted something to be done for them too - so that they too could do something for the community in turn! Impressed by their enthusiasm and eagerness, I agreed to do something to mobilize the women through formation of self-help groups. In course of time, arrangements were also made to train womenfolk in bee-keeping, incense-stick making, towel weaving, tailoring, mushroom cultivation, poultry-farming and floriculture.




     Self-Help Groups (SHG)




     In 2001, the Swashakti Project, assisted by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Bank through the Jharkhand Womens Development Society and later through the Project for Formation of Self-Help Groups assisted by the Council for Advancement of People's Action in Rural Technology (CAPART), was launched. It was committed to empowering women in the area adopted by the Ashrama. SHGs were formed to strengthen entrepreneurial skills among marginalized women and empower them in order to sustain group ventures for micro enterprises. The idea was to eventually improve their economic and social status.


     Under this plan, like-minded women living below the poverty line come together to discuss their common problems and try to solve them by forming an SHG. Despite their low-income/low-saving capacity, they make voluntary contributions to a common fund on a regular basis. This has enabled them to free themselves from dependence on and exploitation by private finance agencies; for them, life in perpetual debt is over. Not only that, these groups now use their pooled resources to make small interest-bearing loans to their members to meet their emergent needs, or to other income-generating programmes. Linkages are also set up with banks to give loans to SHGs in certain multiples at market interest rates.


     All this demands a good deal of training (called capacity building) for members. Between January and September 2002, 691 members in 24 batches were trained by the Ashrama in leadership, conduct of group proceedings, panchayati raj, record-keeping and bookkeeping. The number of these SHGs has now reached 285.




     The Impact of SHGs




     More than helping develop micro-saving, micro-credit and micro-enterprise habits, the SHG methodology has proved to be a holistic approach. Its success has brought about tremendous change in womens outlook at grass-roots level. After undergoing the above-described training in capacity building, their awareness of social issues has increased, they have grown in self-confidence and decision-making ability, and they are also conscious of their social responsibilities. In just five years these women, mostly tribals, have outgrown their earlier attitudes. They are now bold enough to speak for themselves and to place their rightful demands before the concerned government officials. They are conscious of their strength and dignity. In short, they are now a voice to reckon with.


     Here is the proof. In a recent interactive meeting, an SHG member revealed: Before joining the group we used to feel very lonely and distressed, but now we are many and united. We can rely on the group in times of emotional or financial crises. It steps in like a family to help us out. My husband used to beat me after consuming alcohol. One day I told him I would disclose it to our group. He has given up drinking since then and behaves well with me now. We have gained self-dignity within the family as well as in society.




     Promotion of Self-reliance




     After their course in capacity building, SHG members are given income-generation training in various skills. Different SHGs are engaged in different activities. As of now, 70 groups are engaged in diverse self-reliance projects like incense-stick rolling (5), pisciculture (7), mushroom cultivation (11), cattle breeding (14), poultry and dairy farming (8), vermi-compost making (8), soap making (3), weaving (3), tailoring (3), seed multiplication (2) and food processing (6).


     The Ashrama has plans for teaching some more skills in the near future. These include cane-work, health work, integrated pest management, rice milling, spice grinding, lac production and silk production.








      Incense-stick rolling: A 10-member SHG that began as a small production unit overcame marketing problems by manufacturing according to demand and has itself become a training centre now.

      Pisciculture: Divyayan has constructed over 20 tanks in its adopted villages in order to introduce fish breeding based on scientifically proven techniques. The venture has been so problem-free and lucrative that four SHGs have even taken tanks on lease from the government.

      Poultry farming: What began on an individual basis has now grown into a common phenomenon. Four SHGs, each member of the groups owning 10 birds of the special Divyayan Red breed, have earned a net profit of Rs 20,295.

      Food processing: An abundance of fruits and vegetables in Jharkhand encourages members of Mahila Swayam Sahayata Samuh to receive training in horticultural food processing. They have now started producing a variety of pickles, sauces and jellies.

      Weaving: On passing a six-week intensive course at Divyayan, 15 women linked up with Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA) and obtained Rs 25,000 as running capital for opening a weaving centre. District Rural Development Agency (DRDA), Ranchi, sanctioned Rs 3,77,400 towards installation of looms and a workshed.

      Non-conventional-energy appliance repairing: A recent training programme for repairing solar lanterns, driers and cookers drew enthusiastic response.




     SHGs in Health Care




     The activities of the SHGs are not restricted to the economic aspect of welfare. Regular health camps are organized exclusively for women where treatment and medicines are given free of charge. The Ashrama has also formed village health committees and trained health workers to conduct health programmes for tuberculosis, malaria and leprosy control. A six-month accupressure course was organized at Divyayan, as a result of which 146 girls received training in this science. Village women are quite taken with this novel, low-cost therapy.




     The Basis of Empowerment




     Real empowerment of women, however, lies in helping them unfold the spiritual aspect of their personality, build up their character and manifest their purity and motherhood. It is these that make up the character of the ideal Indian woman; earning capacity and public status are secondary. All women are parts of the same infinite divine Power, and hence divine. Fully realizing the importance and urgency of the uplift of women, if we are to save our cultural traditions and spiritual values and counter the negative trends that are now affecting our body politic, Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama, Morabadi, Ranchi, has been putting in much effort to promote spiritual values in rural womens lives. It conducts regular conventions for them to make them aware of their true power. SHGs too organize cultural and value-orientation programmes and other meetings on their own for their all-round development. Recently, one such conference was attended by 1700 members.


     Empowerment is complete only when a given community takes full control of its own development and the implementing agency, much like a catalytic agent, remains in the background after initiating the process of change. This is exactly what the Ashrama does: once the machinery it has set up is in working order, it hands over the management of affairs to the grass-root organization or SHG, and itself remains in the background to provide motivation and guidance from time to time.


     As Swami Vivekananda said, Our duty is to put the chemicals together, the crystallisation will come through God's laws. Let us put ideas into their heads, and they will do the rest.




International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015







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